Religion in the military

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has almost 60,000 service personnel across three services – Navy, Army and Air Force.

As an institution of government charged with defending our country, it should be, in theory, secular and inclusive of all Australians – just like other government departments and agencies.

What’s the problem?

Religion maintains a privileged position in the ADF. Indeed, the continued religious influence makes the ADF, according to former Army Colonel Phillip Hoglin, “functionally, if not structurally, non-secular”.

This remains so even though the ADF has gone from having a predominantly Christian workforce two decades ago to one that is now mainly non-religious. The Defence census of 2019 showed that 56 per cent of full-time Defence members identified as not having a religious affiliation, compared to just 31 per cent in 2003. As of 2022, the figure is expected to be over 60 per cent.

The influence of religion is evident in a number of key areas of military life. 

The current pastoral care model – providing frontline care for personnel, in ships and in units – is religious-based. Only the Navy has introduced secular roles – albeit a small number – to its chaplaincy branch, having recognised that many of its personnel did not feel comfortable speaking with religious chaplains.

The ADF maintains a culture dominated by Christian-centric rites and traditions. Its ceremonies, attended by personnel and the public, include readings of prayers and other religious activities.

Australian taxpayers also pay for Defence to employ a committee of bishops and other senior religious figures, known as the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services, to provide advice on religious matters. There is no such committee advising Defence from a secular perspective. 

If operating in a war zone where populations are of other faith backgrounds, having the ADF perceived as a Christian institution raises potential safety concerns and issues of operational bias.

As service personnel, just like the rest of society, continue to become less religious, the ADF will have no option but to reform.

What we’re doing

We’re helping to raise public awareness about the need for the ADF to make broad secular change.

In particular, we are lobbying the federal government, the opposition and members of parliament to push the three services to make more rapid transition to a modern wellbeing support capability.  

The failure to do so would have significant detrimental impacts at a time of growing concern about the mental health of our service personnel – as demonstrated by the Royal Commision into Defence and Veteran Suicide.

What you can do

You can write to your local federal MP or state/territory senators, or arrange a meeting with them, to voice your support for our positions.

You can also consider helping us to make an impact by becoming a member of the Rationalist Society of Australia or making a donation.

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